Telling a good story
According to the U.S. Department of Commerce, the entertainment industry in the United States made more than 200 billion dollars in 2019. The numbers that make this up come from movies, streaming video, music, books, and video games as the categories the department used. Add in concerts, sporting events, and other forms of entertainment that we use for recreation and I imagine it would most likely double that number. I was thinking about this and what the connection to all these things is and I think it’s the idea of story.
All these things have one thing in common, story. Each of these things tells a story whether it’s the story of superheroes on the silver screen or the love story in a song or the athlete that overcame great obstacles to achieve greatness in the arena. These are all stories that are lived out by the audience as they experience the movie, song, or sporting event.
I think this love of story was true of our ancestors as well. From the ancient Chinese philosophers to the bards of Celtic cultures to the poets of Greece and Rome there have been those who shared epic tales from time immemorial. Story, whether in the form of an epic poem or song, was the medium of entertainment for the ancients until the late nineteenth and early twentieth century and the advent of motion pictures, radio, and television. Even then, it was still the story, fact or fiction, that drove and still drives us to our entertainment.
But story was also a way to share knowledge. Things like fables, parables, and historical tales were the way teachers, philosophers, and religious leaders conveyed their truth. The ancient Judeo-Christian culture was no different. All the stories of the Jewish and Christian Testaments were once stories told around campfires and in homes as a means of sharing beliefs, culture, and a way of life. The Psalmists says,
O my people listen to my instructions. Open you ears to what I am saying, for I will speak to you in a parable. I will teach you hidden lessons from the past—stories we have heard and known, stories our ancestors handed down to us. We will not hide these truths from our children; we will tell the next generation…
When we come to the time of Jesus, we have story as the primary means for both entertaining and teaching truth. When you wanted to tell someone something they would remember, something that would stay with them, you told it as a story. Why do you think so many people remember the stories and illustrations that ministers use but forget the doctrinal ideas? Because the story is more interesting, compelling. How many times do we see Jesus teach in parables? How much of what we call the Bible is recorded in the form of stories? And a gospel is just that, a story; a special kind of story but a story, nonetheless.
The gospels are the good news of who Jesus was shared as a story. They are a way of portraying the essential character of the person and personality traits of the person they are about. In the time period that they were composed, and they were composed first as oral stories, telling the story would have been the easiest way to share the Way of Jesus. The vast majority of people, some 99 percent, were not literate. Most people could not read; maybe they could recognize a few words, but most information came to them from street performers, public criers, religious teachers, and local storytellers.
The Gospel of Mark may well have been composed orally and transmitted orally for decades. It is a compelling story that can be performed in about an hour and a half, a normal time for storytelling, especially after the evening meal. A good storyteller familiar with Jesus’ traditions could hear it once and tell it again.
The story they were telling, one about how God through Jesus changed their life and way of life, was a story for everyone. It was intended to be the sort of thing anyone could sit, listen to, and be inspired to a different life. And this good news was not a formula, not reduced to simple set of propositional statements for people to memorize and spit out or at people when the subject comes up. It was a story; a story of how God changed the lives of a great many people through the ministry of one Jesus of Nazareth. And that is the point of this sermon series, to retell the story in a way that connects us to the people who originally told it. Hopefully, with the Holy Spirit’s help and guidance, we too will be changed by hearing it in the way they did.
The thing about telling stories is that stories often refer to other stories and for the people who hear them first, the other stories are obvious. Take for instance the beginning of Mark’s gospel. When the story starts, the storyteller tells us first what the story is, “The beginning of the Good News about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God.” In other words, this is going to be a story about Jesus who is considered anointed by God as well as the son of God. This meant different things to different people at the time it was written, something that we will see as we tell the story. The important thing to realize at the beginning is that the first part tells us who Jesus is and what he is here to do.
The story sounds like an abbreviated version of the Jewish story. It starts with a familiar phrase that sounds kind of like the “in the beginning” of Genesis and moves forward from there to the baptism. The baptism of John feels like the Exodus story. It begins with one called from the wilderness to “‘Prepare the way for the Lord’s coming! Clear the road for him!” This is like several prophetic figures of the Old Testament, but it is especially very much like Moses or Elijah. In the same way that the people heard the Word of God through Moses and went through the waters of the Reed Sea, from slavery and death to freedom and life, John is calling them to change their way of life and declare that change by walking into the waters of the Jordan River and back out as a sign of their change and their acceptance of and into a new community and way of life. This idea of changing direction to follow after God is the central message of the kingdom of God preached both by John here and later by Jesus.
And that is the point of the beginning of the story: God is doing something different. It follows the same pattern of things before. It is similar to the way God has rescued the Jewish people before, but this is different. Before, there were prophets and kings and Israel was becoming a nation and a people. The Lord God was their God. Now, God was doing a new thing, a re-creating. Before, the people were baptized with water or to put it another way, they were changing direction to walk after God and God would lead them through the prophets and their message. Now, the people would be baptized with fire, with the very Spirit, the very presence of God. It would be like being in the temple and behind the veil. It would be God with us and within us.
And all this happens because on person comes on the scene, Jesus of Nazareth. It is his story, this story that we are immersing ourselves in, learning from, growing out of. And this is just the beginning.
Dewey, J. (2017). The Gospel of Mark as an Oral/Aural Narrative: Implications for Preaching. Currents in Theology and Mission, 44(4), 7-10.
Ehrman, B. D. (2012). The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings (4th ed.). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Wright, N. (2004). Mark for Everyone. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Publishing.
 Psalm 78:1-4a
 (Ehrman, 2012, p. 84)
 (Dewey, 2017, pp. 7-8)
 (Dewey, 2017, p. 7)
 (Ehrman, 2012, pp. 90-91)
 (Wright, 2004, p. 2)